More Thoughts About Limitations

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' home, just down the road from ours. My grandmother had a half-sister named Sarah who lived with them. I never thought much about her being there, but the few times I had friends with me, they were always kind of freaked out by her.

A photo I shot this summer on expired film using my plastic "Debonair" toy camera.

Sarah didn't speak. She would sit in her chair by the living room bay window, gazing out at the field below. Sometimes she'd smile at us. Her hair was long and gray, and I guess to other people she gave off that crazy-old-aunt-in-the-attic vibe. If we got too noisy, she would retreat to her bedroom, and would push a framed window screen and her dresser in front of the doorway to block us little, would-be intruders. It was always that way, and since I grew up with her around, it never seemed strange to me.

After my grandfather died, Sarah's health declined rapidly and she had to go live in a nursing home. She died not long thereafter, but not before my mother discovered that she could actually speak (in a whisper) to communicate her needs. Aside from her quiet and mostly private existence, we learned that Sarah had an unusual hobby. In her bedroom, she spent years fashioning elaborate doilies from toilet paper. I never saw exactly how she did it, but she made impressive designs from simple tissue.

I've been thinking about her art lately, along with other people I've heard about who have used humble materials and tools to make amazing things. Human beings are remarkably resourceful, and our imaginations can make a lot from very little. In fact, we are the most creative when we have constraints. Several years ago, I read about a legally blind, 97 year old man, who made astonishing works of art using nothing but the lowly Windows Paint program in Windows 95.

We live in a day where we have an abundance of software that far outstrips the capabilities of the simple Microsoft Paint program. Even the cheapest commercial software (and most free graphics programs) can run circles around the rudimentary tools in Paint - layers, masking, millions of colors, and tons of filters all being common features. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, I've evaluated a number of programs in my search for an eventual replacement for Adobe CC (more about that ongoing process in a future post), and most are capable of producing professional, highly-polished results when used skillfully.

And therein, I believe, lies much of my own problem when it comes to creating photographs. I have too much gear, and too many programs, all vying for my attention. My computer desktop is cluttered with shortcuts to any number of powerful programs that share more common features than they have differences. I've got about a dozen camera bags, most with one or more cameras inside. My shelves are filled with extra lenses, lighting equipment, and various doodads. I have a small fridge packed with film, and more yet in the deep freezer. If I want to make a photograph, I struggle to consider which tools I'll limit myself to using for each job. Frankly, I have too much stuff to get truly proficient at using any of it - to say nothing of the mental paralysis that indecision can trigger.

In the pre-digital era, a photographer might keep his or her camera for a decade or more. The gear truly became an extension of oneself, and you learned every nuance, every dial and button, inside and out. Nowadays, most pros buy a new body every few years to keep up with the latest technological advancements. Of course, the same can be said about the software we use to process those images; if a program doesn't get updated to support the latest body or lens, its usefulness is severely curtailed.

It's not that these innovations are in themselves a bad thing. But I think it all moves too quickly. Moreover, we don't stop to appreciate and fully exploit the tools and means we have at our disposal today. My current camera is about to be made "obsolete" by the introduction of the latest model, while I've really never tapped into the full capabilities of what I own now. It's a hamster wheel of acquiring new stuff and learning new techniques. To what end, though? Are we really making better photos, or are we just generating more pixels and rushing to try the latest gimmick?

The ultimate goal, it seems to me, should be learning how to make better photographs, not chasing workshops and online training so we can simply master the latest tools of the trade. If Sarah could make art from toilet paper, is my 2 year old gear really inadequate?